Today’s eye catchy Google Doodle of a man standing in the rain is not ordinary, but it celebrates the 250th birthday of man whose invention keeps us dry all monsoon and winter: Charles Macintosh (1766 – 1843), inventor of the waterproof raincoat — commonly known as a mackintosh.
The chemist was born 250 years ago today in Glasgow, Scotland, where it rains, sleets, or snows an average of 201 days per year, hence proving the famous English proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention”.
Rightfully and factually, Macintosh wasn’t the first person to discover that liquid rubber is a great deterrent to water, in South America, people had been painting their clothing with the liquid sap of rubber trees for centuries, according to Chemical & Engineering News. The problem was that sap didn’t travel well, so for rubber to get to Scotland, it had to cross the Atlantic in solid form — which isn’t very useful when you want a liquid to coat fabrics with.
Instead Macintosh used a gasoline-like liquid called naphtha to dissolve the solid rubber. (Naphtha’s produced as a byproduct when coal’s converted to gas.) Then he started creating garments by taking two pieces of fabric, painting one side of each with the dissolved rubber solution, and sticking them together — sandwiching the rubber in the middle. He patented the process in 1823. The garments were waterproof, but they stank and could get sticky in the heat, and stiff in the cold.
Still, soldiers and sailors didn’t seem to mind being stinky as long as it meant they were dry. For awhile, business was good enough that others tried to copy Macintosh’s idea, and he had to defend his patent in court, according to a biography written by his son.
In the years after Macintosh’s death, his son worried that increasing railway travel meant that people sheltered from the elements wouldn’t need raincoats. But more fashionable, and less smelly, iterations have stuck around, and in the nearly 200 years since its invention, the mackintosh has become a classic.